On Thursday 15 August 2019, I set off from Glasgow to participate in the Induction Week for the first ever students to enrol on the recently approved Bachelor of Dental Surgery programme at the University of Malawi College of Medicine. It was a thrilling prospect! I was accompanied by my Glasgow Dental School colleague, Dr Petrina Sweeney, who would join me in delivering components of the Induction Week programme.
The journey was trouble-free and we spent the weekend completing the preparation of materials for our induction sessions. We also enjoyed time with Dr Peter Chimimba (Malawi MalDent Project Lead) and Prof Nyengo Mkandawire (Dean of the Faculty of Medicine), all of which helped to prepare us for the week ahead.
On Monday 19th August we met the students for the first of their induction sessions. Here they are, pictured with Dr Mwapatsa Mipando, Principal of the College of Medicine, in the centre of the group photo. The curriculum development and approval process had been arduous, but here was the result – and what a great result! It was the start of what would be a truly memorable week.
Following some initial introductory words from Prof Mkandawire, the Principal welcomed the students to the new BDS programme. In total, 10 students have been enrolled into BDS 1 (the Class of 2024) and 15 are commencing the Foundation Year before entering BDS 1 in 2020 (the Class of 2025).
Subsequently Peter, Wiston, James, Petrina and I introduced ourselves and spoke for a few minutes about our own careers in dentistry, to provide some background for the new students. We had a very broad range of experience between us, including primary care dentistry, hospital dentistry, academic dentistry and health services delivery, the latter of particular note since Peter and Wiston had both held very senior posts in the Malawi Government Ministry of Health at various points in their careers.
After a tea break, I delivered a presentation about the MalDent Project, to provide background context to the programme on which the students had enrolled, but also to stress the parallel work stream on oral health policy development and the need for prevention to form a core component of that policy.
The afternoon closed with a presentation by Petrina on some of the common oral disorders that the students would learn about over the course of their five year degree programme.
The following day, Tuesday, we were not required for Induction Week activities and instead we visited the Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST) (https://www.must.ac.mw).
In a previous post I had described a recent meeting in Glasgow with Prof Wilson Mandala (https://wordpress.com/post/themaldentproject.com/988). Subsequently, Wilson, who is Executive Dean of the Academy of Medical Sciences at MUST, had arranged a very interesting itinerary for Peter, Petrina and I. Our first stop that morning was at MUST itself, which is about a 40 minute drive out of Blantyre in Limbe.
As described on its web-site, MUST was established by an Act of Parliament in 2012 “… with the aim of promoting the development, adaptation, transfer and application of science, technology and innovation for macro- and micro-economic development of Malawi”
Having passed through the entrance gates, the scale of this complex becomes clear immediately.
The first cohort of students was enrolled in 2014. MUST currently offers seven undergraduate and two postgraduate programmes in Engineering, Computer and Information Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
The Academy of Medical Sciences started its operations in 2018 with programmes in medical imaging, immunology and medical microbiology. This school also houses a large teaching hospital building, the operation of which is still undergoing development.
We were generously hosted by Professor Jonathan Makuwira, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, and we enjoyed a very productive meeting with him together with several other senior staff members. Two areas have emerged that may develop into collaborations with the MalDent Project:
- MUST runs a Bachelor of Engineering programme that focuses on Biomedical Engineering. There are possibilities for joint working in this area of training in the specialist field of dental equipment installation, maintenance and repair.
- There may be the possibility of developing a dental outreach ‘teach and treat centre’ in the hospital building which forms part of the Academy of Medical Sciences. Senior BDS students could work in this facility under the supervision of qualified dentists. The facility would also improve access to dental care for those living in and around Limbe, an area which is currently poorly covered by dental services.
After this very interesting and positive meeting we were treated to delicious refreshments, before heading back to Blantyre itself.
Following our meeting at MUST, Wilson took us to meet Professor Robin Broadhead who was Principal of the College of Medicine prior to Professor Maleta, who in turn was Dr Mipando’s predecessor. I had heard a great deal about the tremendous work of Professor Broadhead at the College of Medicine and it was a real privilege and honour to meet him over coffee in the lounge of his delightful house. Professsor Broadhead provided some very valuable advice on our plans to design and build a new dental teaching facility on the College of Medicine campus in Blantyre, based upon his extensive experience of other major construction projects for the College, including the associated fund-raising.
In addition to his medical and administrative knowledge and experience, Professor Broadhead is also a very talented artist and it was fascinating to visit his studio and see so many of his canvases, both completed and underway.
After bidding farewell to Professor Broadhead, Wilson drove us back to the Sunbird Mount Soche Hotel for a meeting with Mr William Mpinganjira, who is Deputy Managing Director of FDH Bank Ltd, based in Blantyre. We had a very valuable discussion during which Mr Mpinganjira provided clear advice on how to structure our proposal to potential funders in our bid to identify support for the construction of the new dental teaching facility on the Blantyre campus.
Wilson, Peter, Petrina and I then enjoyed lunch together at the Mount Soche Hotel. It had been a fantastic morning of meetings and I am very grateful to Wilson for setting them up for us.
That evening, the College of Medicine had arranged for all the MalDent team to have dinner at 21 Grill in Ryall’s Hotel, to celebrate the beginning of the BDS course. It was a lovely event and much appreciated by all present.
On the Wednesday morning we had a MalDent Project meeting. The many facets of the project resulted in a wide-ranging set of agenda items, but all linked and interconnected:
The Wednesday afternoon was filled with an induction session run by Peter, Wiston, Petrina and I for the BDS students. This included presentations and extensive discussions on the importance of prevention of oral disease, a description of the various specialties in dentistry, and some aspects of professionalism, with particular emphasis on the pros and cons of using social media channels in a professional context.
On the Thursday morning we were shown the preparations that were ongoing in the lecture theatre to prepare for the programme launch. The carpenters were hard at work and we were left to guess what was being built, because we were next due to participate in a third BDS student induction session.
This session had been billed as an opportunity for general discussion, providing an opportunity for the students to ask questions about dentistry as a profession and about the course ahead. Wiston, Petrina and I were joined for this session by Dr Jessie Mlotha-Namarika, the Head of the Dental Department at Kamuzu Central Hospital who, like Wiston, has been appointed as a part-time Clinical Lecturer for the BDS programme. It was a lively session with tremendous interaction from the students.
Petrina left this session slightly early to meet with Dr Joyce Gwonde, who is Dean for Students at the College of Medicine. This role carries significant responsibilities for the pastoral welfare of the students studying at the College of Medicine. Petrina has many years of experience as a Student Advisor at Glasgow Dental School and the two had arranged to meet to share experiences. It proved a very successful meeting and it was agreed that on return to Glasgow, Petrina would prepare some materials for me to deliver to Joyce during my next visit, scheduled for the near future.
I also left the induction session slightly early to meet Dr Susan Chichlowska, a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Public Health & Family Medicine at the College of Medicine. Susan was originally from the UK but has lived in Malawi for many years. Susan is involved in joint research projects with my colleagues Prof Peter Mossey and Mr Remus Chunda at the University of Dundee and I was keen to discuss some related issues with her. We had a very valuable discussion over a coffee at the Beit Cure Café and were subsequently joined by Petrina.
After lunch at the café, Petrina and I headed back to the main Lecture Theatre in the Library for the official BDS degree launch ceremony. It was a hive of activity as final preparations were underway. The carpenters had made a great job of decorating the stage and the screen announced the launch of the BDS programme:
A booth had been built which contained a sign announcing the new BDS programme behind a ribbon and bouquet:
A local band, The Melltones, was playing and singing to welcome guests to the event. I had heard this group previously on an earlier visit, when Peter and I were enjoying dinner at 21 Grill, and had commented then how great they sounded, so it was fantastic to hear them again.
We were ushered to seats in the front row and the hall slowly filled up. The BDS students had pride of place and were joined by other staff members from the College of Medicine, Mrs Papeye from the Ministry of Health and members of the national media.
The event was chaired by Dr Diston Chiweza, the College of Medicine Librarian, who welcomed us all and began proceedings with a prayer.
He then invited Dr Peter Chimimba to describe the background to the long-standing ambition to establish a BDS degree at the College of Medicine, which stretched back over many years. Peter described the launch of the programme as having a potential impact on oral health care in Malawi akin to the impact for mankind of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. It was an emotional speech which illustrated very clearly the excitement that the BDS programme was finally a reality.
Professor Nyengo Mkandawire was the next speaker. He gave a very clear exposition of the mission of the College of Medicine and how the commencement of the BDS programme fitted into the overall structure. He followed with an outline of the course structure and some of the next steps in the development of the programme, including the need to design, fund and build a clinical dental teaching facility on the Blantyre campus.
It is tremendous at last to see Dentistry on the list of undergraduate programmes available in the Faculty of Medicine:
I was then invited to the stage to provide a brief overview of the MalDent Project. It was a pleasure to be able to acknowledge the support of the many individuals and organisations that were involved, both locally in Malawi and internationally, particularly the Scottish Government and UK partners. The importance of developing an oral health policy for Malawi, through close working with the Ministry of Health, was something I stressed as a critical parallel strand of work to ensure that the students who would be trained at the College of Medicine would have a suitable environment in which to work following graduation.
After a musical interlude by The Melltones the Principal, Dr Mwapatsa Mipando, spoke of his excitement that the BDS course had now been launched. He then invited Mrs Papyeye to speak on behalf of the Ministry of Health. In her very positive speech, Mrs Papeye issued an invitation to the Principal to update the Senior Management Group on the progress with the MalDent Project at one their forthcoming regular meetings.
Following the speeches, the official ribbon cutting took place to launch the BDS programme. I was very honoured to be invited to share the ceremony with Mrs Papeye. We were each provided with pair of scissors to cut either side of the central bouquet …
… which was then held aloft by the Principal and one of the BDS students.
After all the work that had gone into the development of the curriculum and its approval by the University of Malawi Senate, together with the many years of campaigning by colleagues like the Principal, Peter, Wiston and Jessie, this was an emotional moment of celebration.
Finally, the Principal accepted a donation of dental materials from Central Medical Stores Trust (DFID), which had been donated to mark the occasion.
The launch event closed with a prayer from Dr Chiweza, following which all the guests were then invited to move to the hallway behind the Lecture Theatre for refreshments and networking.
This photo of Dr Peter Chimimba, taken at the launch event, shows the elation and happiness that so many of us felt now that the BDS programme had finally been launched.
Colgate had a trade stand and provided everyone with a bag containing oral hygiene products and a commemorative mug:
A number of us were interviewed by the journalists present and both Petrina and I spent a long time talking with the dental students. This culminated in the request for a photograph and we were delighted that Dr Joyce Gwonde, the Dean for Students, was able to join us.
The final photo is a tribute to the three men at the College of Medicine who have worked so hard to make this BDS programme a reality – the Principal, Dr Mwapatsa Mipando, the MalDent Project Lead in Malawi, Dr Peter Chimimba and the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Professor Nyengo Mkandawire.
Finally, the Principal kindly drove Petrina and I back to our hotel and shortly afterwards both Peter and Nyengo joined us for a celebratory drink together in the hotel bar. It was a lovely way to close off the day, spending a while with these two great friends and colleagues who have been on the MalDent Project journey from the outset.
Petrina and I were booked on an early flight out of Blantyre Airport the next morning and were to be picked up at 5am for the drive to the airport, so after dinner we both retired early to our rooms to finish packing and get some sleep.
Walking across the tarmac to board the waiting plane at Blantyre Airport the following morning, I reflected on what had been one of the most rewarding and exciting weeks of my professional career. We will undoubtedly face significant challenges over the next few years but the course is now up and running with a group of very impressive young students and a very determined team of staff and partners.
My colleague Petrina, having now experienced Malawi and the staff and students of the College of Medicine, is already looking forward to a future visit, as was Niall Rogerson after he accompanied me last November. I have no doubt that the many other colleagues who are offering their support as Flying Faculty, now that the programme is running, will experience the same pull to keep returning to the Warm Heart of Africa and to support this fledgling BDS programme through its early years.